Three years ago, I sat in my therapist’s office with my face in my hands. I wanted to look anywhere but at her because she was looking at me, she was waiting for me to release whatever had me wound up and fidgeting. “I’ve been reading the news,” I finally said. Our sessions often opened with a long silence followed by me trying to connect with her life, her as a person, her as someone who was not me.
She drew her eyebrows together in concern. “How long has this been going on?”
It had been maybe four weeks. She and I had been over this before. The news wasn’t safe for me. It still isn’t. Honestly, the news isn’t safe for most people. You don’t have to be a survivor of abuse with a stress disorder to be traumatized by modern media. You no longer have to go to war to be directly injured by war. Or, in the day of #RayRice and #WhyIStayed, you don’t have to be abused to be affected by abuse.
It seems like a third of my Facebook friends list has no understanding of this concept. They hit “Share” when a horrifying image or article pops up in their feed. I believe they are trying to do good. They are disturbed by what they see. They are passing it on because they believe others need to know. I agree. When there is hate in the world, we need to shine light on it as a collective. The first step to solving any problem is becoming aware of the problem. However, there are a few rules I’d like my friends to know before they hit “Share,” whether they are sharing video, image or text and whether it pertains to human or animal cruelty. When these rules aren’t followed, the result is that they are passing on the hate rather than inspiring compassion. (FYI: For those wary of TRIGGERS, a * precedes rules hosting triggers.)
1. USE YOUR WORDS This is not just something we tell toddlers. Stop and consider why you feel the need to share. It might be helpful to use the template “When I see ____, I feel ____ .” If you are unable to form a clear statement indicating your purpose in passing it on, you have no business passing it on.
2. PREFACE CONTENT WITH THE WORDS “TRIGGER WARNING.” If there are graphic images or descriptions in what your are sharing, whether it is animal abuse, poverty, sex or war, slap “trigger warning” before the content you are sharing. Bonus points if you identify what is triggering. Example: TRIGGER WARNING: images with blood, animal cruelty. This allows readers to collect themselves mentally or come back to it when they are in a place with no kids, feel safe, etc.
*3. LINK TO CONTENT RATHER THAN POSTING IT DIRECTLY This is a respect issue. Providing a link means your friends and readers can choose whether they will click it. I respect that you may choose not to read this list. That is your choice. If you post an image of a father screaming over his dead child, and I am scrolling through my feed, I am going to see the picture before I can choose not to see the picture. You know, unless I quit social media. You can bet I’m going to unfriend you before I do that. If everyone who dislikes your visual assault unfriends you, the only people left are the ones who already know. In that case, you have impacted your ability to reach anyone new. You are now stuck preaching to the choir.
*4. IF YOU WOULDN’T SHARE IT IN PERSON, DON’T SHARE IT ONLINE Would you carry around a high-resolution image of hard-core sex acts as you went about your day in public? One that was large enough that everyone who passed you would see and understand it? No? How about death-porn? How about mutilated cats?
*5. REMEMBER THAT NOT JUST YOUR FRIENDS ARE WATCHING Maybe you spend your Fridays outside Planned Parenthood with gory and disturbing images because people need to know. Really? Does my highly sensitive eight-year-old NEED TO KNOW about broken fetuses? Even if giving him nightmares would endear me to your cause, when I have to stay up all night with him I am less likely to want more children and more likely to use birth control and empathize with women who recognized that they were unready for parenthood. I honestly don’t mean that in a snarky way.
The same is true for my Facebook feed. I frequently called my kids over to share your videos of happy puppies or laughing babies. Not anymore. We live in a time where we literally have the world at our fingertips. If we want to know, we can find out. And what we don’t want to know, we often are told.
6. BE AWARE YOU ARE LOOKING AT /READING PORNOGRAPHY Dictionary.com defines pornography as “obscene writings, drawings, photographs, or the like, especially those having little or no artistic merit.” Do your research. There are whole categories of porn that have nothing to do with sex and everything to do with brutal arousal. See number four. (Please note: arousal is not always a positive experience.)
*7. CONSIDER THE FEELINGS OF THE SOURCE Okay, this one really pisses me off. Those dead babies? Did you talk to their parents before you decided to exploit them for political gain? Did you ask the father who is screaming whether or not he wants the world to witness this horribly intimate moment? Did the images come from a trusted source?
8. CONSIDER YOUR OWN FEELINGS Go back to number one. If you are unable to articulate why you feel compelled to share, don’t. You are overstimulated. Our human response is to gush, “Oh my God. This is awful. I have to pass it on so I am not alone in feeling this.” We don’t want to be alone with our fear. We reach out to others because it is a way to feel safe. Still, we need to think before we speak. I’m not saying be alone in your pain. Reach out with caution, querying an individual if they are open to receiving what has moved you. Maybe put a dollar in a donation jar in the meantime. When you get to $20, find a way to help the people/animals you are worried about.
9. DETERMINE IF SHARING IS THE SAME THING AS HELPING Because, chances are, hitting “Share” is just your way of passing the emotional buck. Hitting “Share” is quick and easy and there! You’ve done your good deed for the day. When, in fact, you’ve done very little. It’s entirely possible all you’ve accomplished is unintentionally triggering an episode of severe anxiety in someone who you did not give the chance to mentally brace themselves before absorbing your explicit material.
10. OBSERVE THE GOLDEN RULE If you wish you hadn’t seen it, don’t share it with anyone else. This is a critical media sharing practice as it keeps individuals and families safe from relapse into issues of mental illness. For example, viewing unexpected images of bodies for PTSD vets of any country can cause flashbacks of war, triggering depression and suicide. This is not an overstatement. For others, it may trigger feelings of unsafety, paranoia and irritability that last weeks, or a panic attack that only lasts minutes. While the compulsion to share and get word out about global atrocity can be wonderful, please realize that posting an image in a social media feed where people will see and absorb it before they can choose to is, simply, an act of terror. Many of us have lived through wars in different forms. Even those of us that haven’t can still be hurt by images.
Frustration aside, what I am advocating here is compassion. Whether you agree with the use of trigger warnings as a means to maintain the agency of trauma survivors, you still have a voice. If your goal is to pass on hurt, continue sharing graphic material with no reflection. If your goal is to elicit empathy for the disenfranchised, practice respect for the disenfranchised your peers by using your words to articulate why we should care and what we can do to help.